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The Justice of the Kingdom, Part 4: The Golden Rule

Series: Matthew

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Sep 21, 1997

Matthew 7:12

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Please turn with me in your Bibles to Matthew chapter 7.  We continue our study in our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount.  We have been for these past three weeks and today concluded, four weeks studying the first verses of Matthew chapter 7.  And in this passage, we have learned that our Lord’s righteousness extends to the relationships that we have with others.  Our Lord is not simply interested in us, having fellowship, a relationship with Him that has no practical effect on the way we relate to others.  He desires our faith, our trust in Him to resound in our relationships with others. 

      And Jesus in Matthew 7, verses 1-12 has been teaching about principles for righteousness in our relationships.  We saw, for instance, in verses 1-5, where the Lord addresses the issue of judging, of estimating, of evaluating, of drawing conclusions, and acting on those conclusions with regard to our brothers.  And we saw there how we are and are not to evaluate and correct our brothers and sisters in the Lord.  He reminded us not to be hypercritical.  Not to be censorious.  He reminded us not to be uncharitable in our judgments of one another and to pay very close attention to our own sins, before we appoint ourselves to draw the sins of our brothers and sisters to their attention. 

      Then in verse 6, He gave us a very difficult word that had to do with the way we judge those who are resolutely opposed to the Gospel.  How are we to treat the one who is stubbornly opposed to the Gospel?  How are we to treat the one who is persistently apathetic about the Gospel?  The Lord Jesus tells us in that frightening passage. 

      Then He speaks to us about prayer in the third section of this passage, from verse 7 to verse 11.  And that might not seem to fit the mold because He has been talking about relationships with others, and suddenly He is talking about prayer.  But when you realize that the Lord is asking you to withhold judgment in one case and to exercise judgment in another, to be charitable in judgment in one case, to be firm and brave in judgment in another, to know the difference in cases, that drives a saint to his knees, to her knees.  Lord, when should I exercise this judgment?  When should I withhold judgment?  How can I honor You, in the way that I correct my sister, my brother in Christ?  How can I honor You in the way that I do not cast my pearls before those who have rejected the Gospel as if it had no value?  How do I know to do that?  The Lord Jesus teaches us in verses 7-11 to go to the Lord, go to the Lord and ask for His wisdom, seek it, and He will give it to you. 

      And then today, we come to verse 12, where He begins to speak to us about His general rule for how we are to relate to all men.  We come today to the passage which is known as the Golden Rule.  And again, like so many other parts of the Sermon on the Mount, it is a very misunderstood passage.  There have been folks who have attempted to reconstruct modern society along the lines of the Golden Rule as the solution to all our problems without recognizing the harsh reality of sin and sin’s desire to defeat the Golden Rule in our hearts.  Let’s attend the word of God together.  We will begin in verse 1 of Matthew chapter 7 in order to gain the context.  Hear God’s holy Word. 

Matthew 7:12 

      Our heavenly Father, we ask today, not only to see clearly, but by the Spirit to be molded that we might do.  For we would not merely be hearers of the word, but doers of it.  We know that we can only do this by grace, O Lord, for this is not merely a function of the understanding.  It is a function of a renovated will.  And se we ask that by grace that you would enable us to do what you have called us to do.  For we see that Your commandment is exceeding broad.  Now we ask Your help O Lord as we study the Word, through Jesus Christ.  Amen. 

      The Lord Jesus in this passage is instructing His disciples in the practical love which He expects from all of His followers.  The Lord Jesus has not simply introduced His people into an airy, fairy religion, where we meditate off in closets about the glories of the beyond, but He intends to transform lives in the here and now.  And His message in the Sermon on the Mount, is not about then and there, it is about here and now.  It is not a perfect life in a perfect world that Jesus Christ is talking about.  He is talking about kingdom life in a fallen world, and in this little verse, Matthew 7:12, He is speaking to us, of the difficult and even the heroic love that He requires of us towards our neighbors.  And I would like to look at this great truth with you this morning.  

I.  Christians are to be deliberately and conscientiously concerned for our neighbors' best interests.
      The first thing that we learn in this passage is that Christians are to be deliberately and conscientiously concerned for our neighbors' best interests.  Christians are to be deliberately and conscientiously concerned for their neighbors' best interest.  We cannot turn a blind eye to the needs of others.  Nor, may we ignore how we treat them.  Jesus says, in Matthew 7:12, in everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you. 

      The 'therefore' is very interesting.  What does the 'therefore' refer to?  What is Jesus referring back to, when He says in light of this, or so, or therefore, treat one another as you want others to treat you.  He has just been speaking about prayer.  What does prayer have to do with the way we treat one another.  Well, as we have said before, Christ has been speaking about judgment, about correction, and about prayer in this passage.  As we go to the Lord for wisdom about judgment, and correction and anything else that we go to the Lord, the Lord gives us wisdom and guidance.  He walks us along the way, according to the principles of His word, and gives us the moral resolution to do what we know to be right in accordance with His will. 

      But another benefit that we get in prayer is that it puts us in a humble posture.  For when we go to the Lord in prayer, we remember that we ourselves are beggars to His grace.  We have not earned our position of inheritance in the kingdom.  We have received it by a donation of His free grace and mercy.  And therefore, we too, ought to have a charitable spirit towards all men, even those who have hurt us, and even those that we do not know.  For He has shown mercy in our own experience.  Sinclair Ferguson has said this, "Only the person who sees that he is a beggar before the Lord, and has nothing to offer, but has discovered that he is the heir of the grace of God, will be sufficiently set free from self-centeredness of character to put others first, and to do to them, what he would appreciate receiving from them."  Only the person who has bowed before the Lord and humbled himself, herself before the Lord in prayer, realizing that all that He has given us is of His grace, is able to get out of that native self-centeredness, which captures us all and is enabled to be other centered.  Christ is here, pressing on His followers their duty of righteousness to all men.  This, He sees, as part of true religion. 

      You remember the Lord Jesus Christ stresses, in opposition to the Pharisees, that His disciples should live a life of practical righteousness, of a righteousness which is manifested in their relationships to others.  They must not only claim to be believers, they must not only claim to have an experience of God, but that experience of God must flow forth in righteousness of relationship with others. 

      If Jesus has given us Matthew chapter 7:6, the exception to the rule, then in verse 12 He has given us the general rule of our relating to all men. Indeed, He has given us the Golden Rule.  Matthew Henry has said, "Christ came to teach us not only what we are to know and to believe but what we are to do.  What we are to do, not only toward God, but also toward men.  Not only toward our fellow disciples, those of our party, and persuasion, but towards men in general.  All, with who we have to do."

      Christ is enjoining neighbor love.  If He called us to be discriminating in our judgment in verse 6, in verse 12, He calls us to be indiscriminate in our equity and our fairness to all men including those who have hurt us, those who have wounded us, those who are enemies, and those who we do not know.  Christ knows that we are naturally inclined to self-interests.  We are even naturally self-centered and self absorbed and so He instructs His disciples that they are to turn those instincts of self-preoccupation toward the benefit of others.  Rather than simply looking out for ourselves, we are to thoughtfully consider our treatment of others.  The Lord Jesus knows that we spend a lot of time thinking about what we wish others would do towards us.  We even stew over what we wish others would do towards us, or what we wish others had not done towards us.  And the Lord Jesus Christ says, now all that energy that you have spent there on yourself, what I would like you to do, is I would like you to reflect upon that and then I would like you to treat others in light of that.  Instead of taking all that time that you have just spent stewing about what you want others to do towards you, I want you to take that and I then I want you to reflect, how does this show me that I ought to be treating others?  Even those who have hurt me?  Even those that I don’t know?  How ought I to treat others in light of these things?  Christ knows that self-love and the instinct for self-advantage are powerful forces in our lives.  And they are so powerful that they often keep us from caring for others.  We always think our problems are bigger than other people.  We always think that we have been mistreated much more severely than others have.  We always feel that our needs are the most pressing needs of the hour.  But Christ is here saying, that those instincts for self-preservation and self-love, and self-advantage, must be turned and even harnessed as a guide to our treatment to others. 

      Calvin shares an interesting phrase that I think you will relate to.  He says that "Where our own advantage is concerned, there is not one of us who cannot go into detail, chapter and verse on the extent of our rights.  Everyone shows himself to be an exact scholar of justice when it suits themselves.  But when it suits others, that is another matter."  And so the Lord Jesus is saying, I know your instincts to look out for your own interests.  I am calling on you to be deliberately and consciously concerned for your neighbors interest.  I am calling on you to reflect upon your responsibilities to them, and upon your treatment of them. 

      Now friends, everyone praises this rule.  You won’t find many people, even in our debauched and depraved culture who will stand up in a classroom anywhere and say, you know, the Golden Rule is a bad idea.  Everyone thinks the Golden Rule is a great idea.  But it is putting it into practice is the hard part isn’t it?  It is easy to say, oh what a wonderful standard of treating one another, but it is very, very difficult to put into practice.  Let me illustrate this to you.  Apply this rule to your most difficult relationship.  Think to yourself.  What is your most difficult relationship in life?  Do you have a wife, a husband, a parent, a child, who has hurt you to the point that you believe that it is beyond repair.  And every time that they share yet another small hurt, the pain flows over you like a wave, and the hurt is so intense that you can hardly think straight.  You find yourself snapping back in anger or withdrawing into isolation for protection.  How is your instinct for looking out for the best interest of others in those circumstances?  How about in relationships with people who are very, very different from you?  You share nothing in common with them socially, economically, racially.  How do you love them?  How do you treat them?  Does your heart go out for them as your Savior says, He wants your heart to go out to them.  Do you treat them as your Savior has called upon you to treat them?  Oh, my friends, a little reflection like that will show us that we have a long way to go in embracing this commandment practically.  And that leads us to a second thing that I would like you to observe again in verse 12.   

II.  Christians are to deal with their neighbors according to God's standard of righteousness.
      We learn also in this great passage that Christians are to deal with their neighbors according to God’s standard of righteousness.  That is, with equity, with fairness, and kindness.  We are to deal with our neighbor according to God’s standards of righteousness. 

      Notice Jesus’ words, “In everything therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the prophets.”  Many people will make Jesus to be setting up a new rule of righteousness here.  They will be saying, oh, you see the Lord Jesus is saying forget the Old Testament, that was an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  And the New Testament, it is the law of love.  But that is not the way the Lord Jesus says it.  The Lord Jesus says the standard that I am giving you for loving your neighbor, the standard that I am giving you for loving all men, is precisely the standard that God the Father has given to His people for lo these last thousands of years, and which He has had in print for fourteen hundred years since He gave the Law at Mt. Sinai.  It is the standard of the Law and the prophets.  Jesus calls His disciples to a definite standard of righteousness.  That is the second table of the law. 

      You see, the Golden Rule is based on the law’s principle of neighbor love, which is found in the last six commandments of the Ten Commandments, and is expounded in all the writings of Moses and the prophets.  The Lord Jesus is calling us to treat others as we would wish to be treated on the basis of the law of neighbor love. 

      And let me just point you to a few passages which illustrate this.  First, if you have your Bibles, I would invite you to turn with me to Matthew chapter 22.  In Matthew chapter 22, the Lord Jesus is talking about the issue of what the greatest commandment is.  And He has just said that the greatest commandment is to love God.  And then, in Matthew 22:39, He says this: “The second command is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments depend the whole law and the prophets.”  You see the similarity of language.  This is the Law and the prophets.  Treat others as you would be treated.  On these two commandments, hang the whole of the law and the prophets.  He is calling His disciples to neighbor love here. 

      Let me point you to another passage.  If you would turn with me to Paul’s epistle to the Galatians.  In Galatians chapter 5, once again, we find Paul speaking about this issue of the basis of neighbor love in the law.  Galatians chapter 5:14. “For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement,  YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.”  Paul, the apostle learned well from his Lord and Master,  that the laws of neighbor love are fulfilled in that great commandment, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.  One more passage in Paul if you would turn back to Romans chapter 13.:8-10, where the apostle Paul addresses this same matter.  And he says this in the second half of Romans 13, verse 8. “…for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.”  And then again in verse 9, he continues by saying, if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, "YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF."  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; love therefore is the fulfillmentof the law.” 

      And so, the Golden Rule is the active form of the second great commandment.  We are to love our neighbor.  And how are we to love our neighbor?  Practically.  As Luke tells us in Luke’s version of Jesus’ words here, which you will find in Luke 6:31.  He says, treat one another as you would want others to treat you.  It is an active form of the second great commandment.  And so Christ can say, this is the law and the prophets, to treat one another as you would wish to be treated.  Not because that is the only thing that the law and the prophets say.  Not because the law and the prophets aren’t concerned about our love to God, because He addresses that elsewhere.  But because the whole thrust of the laws regarding to our neighbor in God’s Old Testament drove in the direction of teaching us true love to our neighbor.  Now that command to treat others as we wish to be treated involves at least three things.  And I would like to share those with you very briefly. 

      First of all, if we are to obey this commandment, we must reflect on how our neighbors ought to be treated.  With a view to treating them appropriately.  As we have already said, most of the time, we reflect on how we wish we were treated or on how badly we have been treated by someone.  And Jesus says, what I would like you to spend your meditation time upon is on how you might treat others in such a way that you would like to be treated in that way.  And so He turns our meditation away from self-centeredness to other-centeredness.

      Secondly, this commandment requires that we remind ourselves that we have a duty of justice towards other people that they have the privilege, the right of the benefits of justice.  What is it that we normally think about?  Normally, we think about the fact that we have the right of being treated with justice, and we normally think that we ought to have the benefit of someone else acting righteously or justly towards us.  Jesus says, I know that is your natural instinct.  Here is what I want you to do.  I want you to think about the fact that you have a responsibility to show justice to them, more than you think about the fact that they have a responsibility to show justice to you.  And I want you to think about the fact that they have an interest in the privilege of the benefits of justice, just like you have an interest in justice being done.  And so the Lord Jesus, instead of allowing us to continue to focus on our own selves, He calls us to focus on the needs and the rights of others.

      And finally, He calls on us in this command to deal with others according to their circumstances, in the same way we would wish to be treated.  We should put ourselves in their shoes and consider what they would like.  A husband came home one day, from work, after a long hard day at work.  His wife and he had just had three months before, a new baby.  The baby had the colic.  The baby had not taken a nap, the baby had not slept a night in three months and had screamed the whole time.  The noble husband came home to a screaming child that day and said to his wife, “Dear, I can see you are having trouble with the baby, I tell you what I will do.  I will go out and get supper for myself.”  He meant well, you know what the response was.  “What am I supposed to do for supper?”  You see this kind of love requires us to think beyond the ordinary, to ask ourselves, “How would this person want to be treated?  If I were in their circumstance, how would I want to be treated by me?”  And so, to love them practically. 

      Now, of course, the difficult part is in doing this to those who hurt us.  And with those who are distanced from us. But let me just ask you this. Do you have a desire, a desire to obey this word?  Do you look at this command and you say, this would be glorious if I could implement this in my life.  If you do friends, that is the grace work of the Holy Spirit in your hearts, because wanting to do this command does not come easy.  This is not a command for cowards.  This is a command that costs because love always costs and true love always goes beyond safety.  This is a command that will expose you to heartbreak.  But if you desire it, then it is a sign that grace is reigning in righteousness in your own heart.

      Now let me ask you to do one other thing.  Look at your life again for a moment.  Are you practicing, are you desiring to practice this commandment in the hard places?  As you look at those places, where you are wounded the most, and you see yourself not practicing this sin, you have just been given a mirror from the Lord Jesus to show that you faith has yet to be deepened.  If you are able to look in the mirror of God’s law and see yourself making progress in this area, even in the hard places, then you see the signs of the Holy Spirit deepening your faith.  Even in the midst of your own valleys.   

III.The Golden Rule is not the gospel.
      And that leads us to one last thing that I would like to share with you today.  And again, we find it in verse 12.  Christians must remember that the Golden Rule is not the gospel.  Christians must remember that the Golden Rule is not the gospel, but rather, it is God’s standard for neighbor love.  Very often, the Golden Rule is presented as if it were the Gospel.  You want to be a Christian, then this is what you need to do.  You need to treat one another as you would be treated, and if you do that you will be a Christian.  You want to go to heaven?  This is what you need to do.  You need to love your neighbor, and if you do that, you will go to heaven.  You want to know the gospel?  Well, here it is.  Treat one another kindly.   Be nice to one another, if we give the southern version.  But that is not the gospel, is it?  The Golden Rule is not the gospel.  It is not the way to be saved.  It is not an alternative way to salvation. 

      Have you ever talked with someone who said, “Well okay, you believe in Jesus, that is fine.  I obey the Golden Rule.  That is how I am getting to heaven.”  No.  That is not the gospel.  The Golden Rule is not the gospel.  True obedience to this rule only results from the saving grace of God in a person’s life.  You can’t keep this law.  You can’t keep this rule.  No one can keep it perfectly.  But no one can even begin to keep it without the grace of God in their life.  John Stott says, "Such love is beyond us, apart from the grace of Christ." 

      That leads us to a second thing that many people make a mistake about the Golden Rule.  There will be some people who think that the Golden Rule can be kept in this life.  They think that it is the perfect foundation for social renovation.  They again, forget one tiny little problem, sin.   We are sinners, we are fallen, we live in a fallen world.  We are not naturally inclined to love one another.  Build a society on this rule, and you are going to be in big trouble if there is not something else.  Because no one can keep this command perfectly, this side of glory. 

      Matthew Henry makes a tongue in cheek comment, he says "Either this rule is not the gospel, or we are not Christians."  You see what he means.  If this is the standard by which I am going to be judged as to whether I am a Christian or not, then I just failed, because it can’t be kept perfectly this side of glory.  Should we desire to keep it?  Yes.  Should we strive and grow in the keeping of it?  Yes.  Will we ever perfectly keep it?  No, never!  By this rule the law of Christ is commended.  But if it were the rule of our justification, we would be condemned. 

      Another mistake people make about the Golden Rule is they believe that it is a requirement that they can fulfill in their own strength.  But again, the Golden Rule is not a requirement which we have the capacity to fulfill in our own strength.  It is not enough to announce the Golden Rule as the standard of righteousness and say, okay, just do it.  Just do the Golden Rule and everything will be just fine.  You just do the Golden Rule.  That is not enough.  We may know that that is what we ought to do, but in the hard places, it costs us.  And we don’t find the will power to do it.  Only the grace of God can give us the strength to bear the cost in this kind of love. 

      The Golden Rule is, of course, not a substitute for the rest of Christianity.  There have been many religious liberals who have told us this is Christianity in its essence.  Treat one another as you want to be treated.  That is the essence of Christianity.  They leave out God.  They leave out love for God.  They leave out the gospel  They leave out the cross.  They leave out the atoning death of the Lord Jesus Christ.  They leave out faith and repentance, and trusting and resting in Christ, and justification.  They say, “Boil Christianity down to this: treat one another as you want to be treated.”  But the Golden Rule is not a substitute for the rest of Christianity.  It can’t replace all of Christianity.  Love for God is necessary before we are capable of loving our neighbor, and God’s love for us, by grace and salvation is necessary before we have the love of God in us in order to share with our neighbor.  The Golden Rule is not a subjective situational ethic.  It is not, “You do whatever you feel is the loving thing, in any given circumstance, that is fine.”  The Golden Rule is not a word to drunks that says, “You are a drunkard, you like to tip the alcohol,  give alcohol to any drunkard who asks for it,” because that is the way you would want to be treated. 

      The Golden Rule has definite parameters.  It is the parameters of the Law and the Prophets.  And the kind of love which is enjoined in the Golden Rule can’t contradict what the Bible says elsewhere.  So it has tracks.  There are boundaries.  There is a rail to ride along on this Golden Rule.  It is not just utterly subjective. 

      Nor is this Golden Rule ultimately directed at self-interest.  You will hear people say something like, “Honesty is the best policy.”  Well, that may be true, that honesty is the best policy, but do I not lie because that is the best policy?  Or do I not lie because that is what God wants me to do?  Well, the Golden Rule is the same.  Do we follow the Golden Rule because in the end it is better off for us if we do it?  Or do we follow the Golden Rule because our Lord and Savior who died for us said, this is the way I want to make you by my grace.  You see, the Golden Rule isn’t for self-interest.  It is ultimately directed at the glory of God.  We are not saved by keeping the Golden Rule.  But we are saved to be conformed to the Golden Rule.  As Paul told us, we are new creations in Christ Jesus and we have been created for good works, Ephesians 2:10.  We are not saved by the Golden Rule, but we can only keep that Golden Rule once we have been embraced by Christ, and once we have embraced Him in faith and in repentance.  

IV. How are we to respond to the Golden Rule?
      One final word, how do we respond to this Golden Rule as believers?  The mature Christian, first of all, will love this commandment.  She may know that she can’t keep it, he may know that he falls short every time he tries to apply it in that hard relationship, but he and she will love this command.  The mature believer says, with the Psalmist, “How I love Thy law, O Lord.”  We agree with it.  We say, “Yes, this is right Lord, this is the right way.  This is the way You want me to love people, I want to love people this way.” 

      And then secondly, the mature believer immediately is humbled before the Lord.  Because the mature believer says, “Lord I want to love this way and I know that I am not.  I know that I am not, Lord,  I know that I am falling short.”  The mature believer is not lulled into the self-deception that we are actually keeping this all the time.  I mean there are some of you who are really nice people, and you look a lot nicer than I am on the outside.  But I know that even somewhere down in your hearts, there is place where you are not keeping this commandment.  We all know that we struggle with this in the hard places.  So the mature believer not only loves this commandment, but is humbled by this commandment. 

      And finally while down on our knees confessing our humility before the Lord, we beg God by His grace, and by the Spirit, to work obedience to this commandment in us.  We long to see ourselves growing in our ability to love one another.  We know we won’t obey it perfectly, but we know that God’s church is a hospital where sick sinners get well.  And we want to get well in the keeping of this commandment.  May God help you to walk this way, if you are a Christian today.  And if you are not a Christian, don’t try and make your way to heaven through this rule.   For you will be judged by it in the end.  But instead, trust in the only man whoever kept the rule.  Our Lord Jesus Christ.  Let’s pray.

      Our Father, we thank You for Your word, and we ask that You would give us the grace to love Your law, to be humbled for it, and to strive and desire after it, for Christ’s sake.  Amen.

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